Friday, March 09, 2007

Some (Elementary) Thoughts about Realism

Sometime back I came across this old review written by James Wood of a novel by American novelist and critic William Gass and was struck by the opening paragraph:

William Gass is the philosopher-novelist who wants to scramble our p's and q's. For many years, in both essays and novels, he has fought what he sees as the unthinking realism of American fiction. Instead of the blank essences of traditional fiction, he wants the subtle absences of the nouveau roman: instead of characters, he organizes his fictions around ''symbolic centers''; instead of the architecture of plot, he attends to the fabric of form; instead of the management of reality, he prefers to liberate the sentence. The writer's task is not to make the reader believe in a world: Gass has argued that ''one of the most petty of human desires is the desire to be believed, on the one hand, and the will to belief, on the other.'' The writer's task, as he sees it, is to stimulate disbelief, to tickle the reader's alienation.
Wood then goes on to criticize this viewpoint in his review and even finds contradictions in Gass's own novel under review. (Wood's essay on W G Sebald, another "experimental" writer, also touches on these issues but in a much more sympathetic and detailed manner.) I haven't read any formal literary criticism or philosophy, where it must be an old debate, but that's exactly what I feel, specially these days, when I pick up a novel. I find both "will to belief" and "desire to be believed" totally pointless and soon get bored if I see a writer doing the same. This is not to say that I like fantasies, in fact, this will to belief is even more prominent there. I am sure there are fantasy writers who work by "stimulating disbelief" and "tickling the reader's alienation" but I think there are not many. I am just not well read enough so I will not generalize there.

Not that I have a problem with the entire genre of Realism but I look for hints of self-awareness and self-conscious voice in the novel, even if it is a realistic novel. And my favourite nineteenth century realistic novels like Dead Souls or The Red and the Black indeed do this. Towards the end of The Red and the Black for example, when things are getting really excited (it is an extremely racy story, full of surprises and romantic intrigues), Stendhal inserts a chapter on local politics of French society and then apologises to readers saying that (I am quoting from memory) "Politics in a novel fits exactly like a gunshot would in the middle of an Opera concert"! This is also the reason why I love the digressive and essayistic novels like Don Quixote or Tristram Shandy. I haven't read Rabelais or Tom Jones yet but I think I will like them too. Again this is not to say that conventional realist writers like Flaubert, Tolstoy or Chekhov aren't any less great because they worked with "real" characters or "believable" narrative. They are great because they did so much else than just that.

There are also a whole bunch of postmodernist writers in the Anglo-American world who resist that "desire to be believed" but somehow I haven't yet warmed up to them. They demand too much effort and I am not sure of the returns. (I am mainly thinking about Thomas Pynchon here none of whose books I have managed to read for long.) I have read Rushdie (Midnight's Children), in some ways Pynchon's disciple, but with immense boredom and irritation. Somehow their fascination with historical and cultural "facts" and over-abundance of proper nouns in their books bore me to death. In comparison I like the continental writers (like Thomas Bernhard) much more. Somehow I like their detachment and alienation from the contemporary world. Or perhaps it is just that I can't stand too many references to popular culture. I have myself very little clue about what is happening there.


KUBLA KHAN said...

I can empathize with your sentiments regarding popular cultural references in the novels of post colonial writers who attempt to resurrect a new way of writing. It is crass, boring and the language is a surrogate mix of pop native lingua franca and post graduate student blues.

ted said...

Great post. William Gass wrote the Introduction to the book I'm reading now, Gaddis's The Recognitions, so it's good to know more about him.

I understand what you're saying about wanting a novel that is more alienated by the modern world than it is attempting to encapsulate it; I like both schools of thought (I think The Satanic Verses is great, and I think I'll like Pynchon when the times comes), but I think I find the alienated -- J.M. Coetzee comes immediately to mind, as well as Sebald -- best.

I'd noticed this divide before, but never thought of it in such terms.